US Army Mulls Merging Drone Training after Scathing Audit

The U.S. Army is mulling consolidating its drone training programs after a scathing federal review, according to the service’s top officer.

Auditors concluded that pilots of unmanned systems such as the RQ-7 Shadow struggled to complete required training “because they spend a significant amount of time performing additional duties such as lawn care, janitorial services, and guard duty,” according to a May report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The Army’s outgoing chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, who plans to retire after his term ends in the fall, touched on the issue during a recent interview with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

“We were doing training at a couple of different places and I think we want to consolidate it so we can make sure [initial training is] more efficient and then maybe provide a bit more oversight,” he said, without specifying where the activities might be based.

The Army’s unmanned aerial system initial qualification school is located at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Students are required to take a common eight-week course in aerodynamics, flight safety and navigation. During the next phase of training, which can last between 12 and 25 weeks, students learn to fly and recover one of the service’s three drones, the RQ-7 Shadow, MQ-5 Hunter and bigger MQ-1C Gray Eagle, according to the audit.

The service last year also started a course at Fort Rucker in Alabama in which AH-64 Apache pilots and drone operators teamed up to fly training missions.

Officials at the Army’s intelligence center at Fort Huachuca and aviation center of excellence at Fort Rucker are studying the issue, Odierno said. “They’re going to get back to me on what measures we need to take,” he said.

Of the service’s 65 Shadow units that weren’t deployed in 2014, nearly all of them — or 61 — had the lowest proficiency levels, with less than 340 training hours, according to the GAO report. The units were “untrained on one or more of the mission-essential tasks that the unit was designed to perform in an operational environment,” it stated.

By comparison, 11 of the 13 Shadow units deployed to a combat zone had the highest proficiency levels, with more than 440 training hours.

The Army isn’t the only service struggling to adequately train drone pilots. The Air Force is also filling its ranks with enough unmanned systems operators. It recently announced new incentives to persuade airmen to stay in the field, but fewer than 10 drone pilots were actually slated to receive the $1,500 monthly bonus.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Dennis

    It seems killing people remotely and giving air cover to our troops is considered non-vital.
    Seems the Air Force is not the only ones who don’t want this job (A-10).
    Having worked in regular aviation units (manned aircraft), they would never dream of letting their pilots lose proficiency.
    Is this lack of funds? Or lack of leadership? Is this the new low budget military where units are look good on paper and cannot accomplish the mission?

    • BW3

      Definitely leadership, maybe some funding.

    • Retired officer

      Not that easy. Some is funding, but for the USAF, much of the difficulty is that operators are leaving the service faster than they can be replaced-primary reason ops tempo. In addition, the highly skilled and experienced operators that should be the trainers are needed in the operational units in order to meet mission tasking. It is truly a complex problem with no easy answers.

  • Curt

    This is typical inter-deployment readiness during times of financial difficulties. Even the manned systems have the same problems. Welcome back to the Clinton Years bathtub readiness. Units that just returned from deployment lose people who aren’t replaced until they are getting ready to deploy, flight hours are cut or expended on units that need to be caught up for deployment, equipment is cannabalized yo support operational units are spare parts aren’t available, etc. I am somewhat surprised that they don’t have decent simulators that they can practice on, it is not like the operator can see or feel the aircraft anyway.

    • keith

      yeah simulator should be at least 90% or training on a drone since to cant see and feel it. This is one of the many incredible operation expenses that have been straining DOD’s available funds

      • blight_

        Considering drone readouts are essentially simulacrum of drone sensors there’s no reason to not use Drone Control Stations in a “simulator mode”. And it certainly beats wasting our time with using drone operators (let alone any soldier) to do lawn care and the like.

  • mpower6428

    “Pay for dedicated , trained and proficient personnel or… pay for the toys”.

    But, those were the old days…. now we have an army of undedicated , fat and barely competent gold braided hang-a-round’s biding there time in a dirty office so they can take that consulting job at the local think tank or lobbying group.

    ” They ” along with their boondoggles ( f35b, UCP, FCS and god knows what else ) are sucking the defense budget dry…..

  • blight_aswe

    The Army still seems to think that enlisted personnel are brainless automatons ready for the parade ground, PT, lawncare and whatnot. Military aristocracy is meh.

  • jsallison

    Hey, them rocks aren’t going to paint themselves!

    • Jp

      How much lawn have you seen at Ft Huhcahuca dude? It’s on the Mexican border. More GAO BS.

      • BW3

        But there are plenty of weeds to be pulled!

  • Highguard

    Hi Curt! Good to see a good ole boy on Defense Tech. Cheeehaa and Roll Tide!

    • Trey

      Go VOLS!!!!!

  • Fatman

    This seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly it takes to keep drones in the air. Maybe if they weren’t called unmanned systems it would be easier to comprehend that it still takes personnel to fly them.

  • DAESH fighter

    Anyone find it odd that the army has remotely piloted planes that perform ISR, and weapons delivery, yet still has manned lawn mowers?

    • blight_

      If we’re going to spend so much government time on making soldiers do non-soldierly tasks, we’re doing something wrong. We might as well turn them into part-timers if we’re going to waste the workday of enlisted personnel on silliness. Maybe one week a month versus the even lower amount of “one weekend a month, two weeks a summer”…?

    • Fatman

      IRobot to the rescue!

  • Lou

    The issue is lack of restricted airspace. The FAA puts so many restrictions on what can and can’t be done that the Soldiers are really challenged to train adequately. Simulation is okay but not the solution. ADS-B standards in the future (incorporating GPS position into transponder signals) may help -

    • blight_

      Are Edwards, Nellis, Tonopah et al under FAA restrictions? While a limited amount of airspace to play in, it’s still an option.

      The other alternative is training over international waters. If you lose a drone in the drink, it’s still a loss. Land crashes aren’t exactly salvageable either.

    • Fatman

      They have pretty much the entire state of Nevada and all of the rest of the world in which to practice flying and shooting things.

      • http://gruntsandco.com/ majr0d

        You guys realize the Army sends it operators out to the units instead of centrally locating them like the Air Force does.

        This allows the commander to own them and for the operators to become familiar with the specific unit, it’s AO, leaders, troops, TTP, specific mission etc.

  • Old Retired Guy

    I think it is time to re-look drone control operators. It is a feature which can be done by other than regular Army or Air Force personnel. I would envision a Drone Operator Corps made up of previous military personnel or retired military personnel who would be offered a position in the Corps to be a Drone control operator. After appropriate physical and mental evaluations, the individuals would report to an assigned training area for the necessary training time. After completion of the training, they would work from their home location (on assigned schedules) over secure data lines to control the assigned Drones. Control would be via an electronic workstation (essentially software…cheap enough to build) with oversight by a regular military officer handling (approximately 5-10) Drone operators. Any critical mission task, such as releasing munitions or flight outside designated flight paths would be approved/actuated by the oversight military officer. The system development cost would be significant but would quickly provide long term savings. The Drone operator corps would be paid at a basic E-5 rate and would not be granted retirement or other privileges which increase the immediate and long term defense budget.

    • blight_asdf

      There are a lot of functions which could be performed by old retired military guys. Even parsing WAAS/ARGUS data for IED emplacers, or IMINT for the NRO. Although we do have machines for this, some degree of cross validation goes a long way.

  • G Crewse

    lawn care! lol!

    • Terence J. Daly

      The Marine Corps uses — or used to use — pilots who are also oombat arms-trained — on the theory that otherwise they won’t understand what they are seeing down there.

  • James B.

    This is proof that we should be pushing hard towards autonomous drones that fly themselves, and only need to be commanded around by battle managers. We could dramatically abbreviate the “flight” school and increase the training for weapons and sensor employment.

  • d. kellogg

    It is interesting to see which military posts (across all services, moreso now with the joint base mergers) have no issues subcontracting out the general grounds-keeping and post maintenance, while others cling to the old adage , “that’s privates’ work.”

    Thru my past career (24 years Army), I can recall far to many instances of this: my early years it WAS the Privates and Specialists who maintained general policing and cleanliness of facilities and grounds. Far too many places now, that’s contractor support work (everything from janitorial to routine barracks maintenance as mundane as changing light bulbs) that junior enlisted get criticized for if they step outside their bounds.
    Whatever happened to the “One Standard” Army? 24 years taught me that was always an illusion.

    • blight_

      If generals see the busywork as “necessary”, it can only be because soldiers would have nothing else to do. The Romans kept their soldiers busy with road building and engineering projects, and it appears we have nothing to do for ours other than replacing light bulbs, painting rocks and maintaining parade grounds? If anything, it’s more ammunition for more part-timers. 20 hours a week part time, 20 hours a week on base? Give soldiers pagers so they can mobilize to their units on minute’s notice, but with higher readiness than a guard or reserve unit.

      • TDaly

        Raise your hand if this applied to you: I have never been in a unit that is so well trained in its primary and secondary missions that it could not use more time and money. C’mon. Raise your hands… Anybody?

      • d. kellogg

        “Busywork” ?
        I can think of dozens of Common Soldier Tasks I would rather have trained myself and subordinates to be more proficient in during slack time instead of raking gravel and primping up the O-club shrubbery, or policing up someone else’s cigarette butts and trash they were too lazy to walk 20 feet to a trash can to dispose of it properly. Soldier tasks that mean quicker reaction time (more committed to memory and things done almost by instinct without hesitation) under battle conditions.
        In all my career I’ve only ever seen twice where a command encouraged combat-deployed Soldiers to talk with “green” post-Basic/AIT Privates and Specialists (never deployed) and tell them, “this is what I/we coulda/woulda/shoulda trained harder on knowing what I/we know now.” That Garrison mindset is one of the worst cancerous mentalities to take root in any of the Service branches. Patton even said, to the effect, that parade-ready armies won’t win a war for him. But generals today gotta have a pristine garrison.

        • blight_

          What’s sad is that this may be cheaper than hiring contractors. My guess is the Sodexo guys at my facility would cost more in a government contract, because screwing the government is a national past-time.

  • LTC

    I know that the soldiers at Huachuca are not engaged in “lawn care” duties, as the number of grass blades, other than on the small parade grounds, are few and far between. Huachuca is high desert, and a great post (for those who have not been there). Saw many A-10s do touch-and-go out of Davis-Montham AFB at Huachuca, so combined unmanned and rotary (AH-64) training should not be a problem, as the flight and training areas are vast and empty.

  • FASnipeHT2

    They don’t hire civilians to swab the deck or clean the heads on a ship. The crew is responsible for EVERYTHING! They should train drone operators all together. All of the services operators. ! facility on each coast.

  • JPenn

    My daughter is a 15E (uav systems repair). Does anyone besides me think the Army should combine the uav systems repairer and uav operator into one MOS? Especially on the small uavs such as the shadow.